Saving Mr. Banks is a winsome, entertaining movie that divides itself between 1. the prickly negotiations between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers in turning Travers’ Mary Poppins books into Walt Disney Studios’ 1964 film, Mary Poppins; and 2. Travers’ hardscrabble Australian childhood as Helen Goff, the adored and adoring daughter of a feckless alcoholic bank clerk named Travers Goff. With Emma Thompson playing Travers, Tom Hanks as Disney, and Colin Farrell as Goff, it’s certainly interesting. But the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith hits so many dubious notes that we can’t help feeling that we’re being sold a fantasy almost as fantastic as Mary Poppins itself—and with more than just a spoonful of sugar to help it go down.
It’s part of Hollywood lore that Disney courted Travers for nearly 20 years, hoping to fulfill a promise to his daughters to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. Actually, the courtship was off and on, Disney having a lot of other things on his plate, but by 1961, with sales of the Poppins books beginning to dry up, Travers was more agreeable, and she flew to California to consult with Disney’s people on a script.
That’s where Saving Mr. Banks opens, striking a false note early on: Thompson’s Travers, appalled at what she considers Disney’s vulgarity, shakes her head over a stuffed Winnie the Pooh doll and mutters, “Poor A.A. Milne.” (For the record, the first Winnie the Pooh cartoon was still five years in the future.)
Later, in story conferences with producer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman) Travers insists on several points: There must be no songs, no cartoons and no Dick Van Dyke playing Poppins’ friend Bert.
Here the script seems to be on firmer ground. In fact, knowing the Mary Poppins backstory, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Travers was a cantankerous, unpleasant and (considering how the movie enriched her and jump-started the moribund sales of her books) ungrateful old battleaxe. That may be open to debate. What is beyond dispute is that she carried her loathing of Walt Disney, and what he had done to her creation, to her grave and beyond, never allowing the studio to film a sequel, and when Mary Poppins was being turned into a stage musical, she refused to allow the Shermans to write any new songs for it. She even put it in her will before she died in 1996 at age 96 (the musical opened in London eight years later).
In Saving Mr. Banks, these hard feelings are not hinted at. Instead, Travers weeps with joy at the movie’s Hollywood premiere, moved by how well it preserves the spirit of her books. (She did, in fact, write a letter to Disney to that effect, though she appears to have changed her tune later.)
What Saving Mr. Banks does best is to provide a showcase for Thompson’s tart performance as Travers and, to a lesser extent, Hanks’ folksy turn as Disney. Hanks, indeed, has probably the best speech in the movie when, talking to Richard Sherman (Schwartzman), Disney sympathizes with Travers’ intransigence, comparing her protective feelings for Mary Poppins to his own for Mickey Mouse. Did Disney ever really say that? Maybe not (Sherman said Disney would often leave the lot to avoid dealing with Travers), but it’s a good speech, and Hanks makes it work.
Thompson makes other moments work, especially when the story conferences spur haunted memories of her childhood. (It’s harder to swallow when the script puts the words of the Sherman brothers’ songs into Goff’s mouth—we can only imagine what his daughter would have thought about that.) The flashbacks are often awkwardly inserted, as if they’d been spliced in from a different movie, with an undercurrent of grimness that, in director John Lee Hancock’s hands, never quite meshes with the seriocomic style of the scenes set in 1961.
The movie ends with a shot of a tape recorder playing the voice of the real P.L. Travers, as if to underscore the truth of what has gone before. But methinks the movie doth protest too much. As entertaining as Saving Mr. Banks often is, it doesn’t feel like the “real” story behind Mary Poppins any more than Mary Poppins feels like a documentary about life in Edwardian London.